McDowell’s Big Idea:
Here’s the problem: how do we get knowledge from sense experience? Willfred Sellars, drawing on the scheme-content debate between Quine and Davidson, has proposed two metaphorical spaces that we use to understand the world: the space of causes and the space of reasons. In the space of causes things just happen: A causes B. Why did the rock fall when it was dropped? Because the laws of gravity caused it to fall. In the space of reasons things don’t just happen: things are right and wrong in light of other statements. This is where logic finds it’s home. Take the most common logical argument: If P therefore Q. P. Therefore Q. Why Q? Because P. Unlike the example of the rock, P did not really cause Q to happen. P is the reason for Q. It justifies Q’s validity, according to the logic of the argument.
So the two spaces are like two different games with different sets of rules. What’s the problem? It’s hardly controversial to claim that empirical investigation and logical discourse are not the same thing.
Well, the problem is we,as physical bodies, exist within the Space of Causes. That means that when we see something and our retinas send the information to our brain (see Death Cab for Cutie’s “Lack of Colour” for a succint description of this process) the whole thing happens within the Space of Causes. But if we want to use this information in a rational inference- for example: there is a cup on the table. I want to reach the cup. If I reach over and grab the cup I will be able to pick it up-then it must exist within the Space of Reasons, because it has an “if….then…”structure.
How does the information get from the space of causes into the space of reasons? Well, before McDowell there were only two options, and neither were that appealing:
1. The first is called “The Myth of the Given”. It is a “myth” because it simply ignores the problem. It is the idea that we can simply use a piece of information from the Space of Causes in a Space-of-Reasons-style inference. Let’s say that the two spaces are two languages: English and Japanese. We are struggling to translate a word from Japanese to English, and end up concluding that it simply isn’t translatable. If we were to follow a “Myth of the Given” approach we would simply insert that Japanese character into the English sentence, completely ignoring the fact that the two languages share different rules: different grammar, a different alphabet etc. It doesn’t work.
2. The second is “Coherentism”. This idea is very Quinian. It essentially says that we should put everything within the Space of Reasons. The Space of Causes is only useful when describing the non-human, non-mental “outside” world, and we don’t have access to this anyway (viz. The Matrix). As humans we just create a coherent network of beliefs and formulas and place these over reality like a big fishing net. We don’t actually interact with reality- it just provides us with raw material that we can mould and interpret as we wish.
McDowell prefers to refer to “Coherentism” and “Frictionless spinning in a void”- I do love how overdramatic he is. What he’s getting at, though, is that in Coherentism there is no constraint on our understanding from “the outside”. As long as we come up with a coherent network (no holes in the fishing net) then we can pretty much interpret reality as we want. This isn’t as bad as 1 (which literally makes no sense), but it still isn’t ideal. In the best possible world our beliefs about the world would be based on an objective reality about the world.
So, how does McDowell propose to solve this? How does he create a bridge between the space of Causes and the Space of Reasons? He argues that human beings are the bridge. Unlike other animals we have an innate capacity to learn and use language which is a distinctly Space of Reasons phenomenon. McDowell argues that this rational-conceptual-linguistic ability is so part of nature as beings that even our perception is governed by it. We don’t see things, we see concepts. Concepts can exist within the Space of Reasons, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t genuinely tied to the thing they conceptualise.
A concept of something necessarily includes the word for that thing. There are no concepts without language. This doesn’t mean that we literally see the word “chair” instead of a chair itself. It means that the linguistic organisation of data is so fundamental to our neuro-biology that our perception of the chair necessarily uses language based “conceptual capacities” as well- we cannot divorce the thing from the word that describes it in sight, smell, touch or taste. Conceptualisation is not just a function of thinking, it seeps through the entirety of our (human) being.
So we can use sense data to justify our beliefs about the world because sense data is part of the Space of Reasons. We were born to be creatures of the Space of Reasons despite physically existing in the Space of Causes.
Like many analytic philosophers, McDowell may be guilty of over-emphasising rationality in humans. Freud is not guilty of this, if anything he swings a bit too far the other way, arguing that humans are ultimately at the sway of their biological drives. Drives give rise to emotions which motivate action. Rationalisation is essentially an excuse-it stops us facing the parts of ourselves it is so painful to face; all those things we have repressed deep into our unconscious minds.
An integral part of Freud’s theory of the unconscious is that it operates using different rules to the conscious mind (anything sound familiar, yet?). The unconscious mind works by primary process thinking which does not take heed of cause and effect, space or time. So in the unconscious “A causes B” is the same as “B causes A”. Things that happen far apart in space and time are treated as though they could influence one another. Our closest conscious experience of primary process thinking is dreaming: this is why dreams seem nonsensical and appear to have their own logic.
This dream-logic also includes two mental functions that don’t show up in conscious rational thought that often: “condensation” and “displacement”. In a dream one thing can be many-there may be one house in your dream but somehow you know that it is both your house and your grandparent’s house. This is condensation. Also, one thing can really be another- you see a person who looks like your maths teacher in your dream, but you know that person is actually your brother. This is displacement. Your brother has been displaced onto the image of your maths teacher.
Spaces, spaces, spaces:
If we combine McDowell and Freud’s models we end up with not two spaces but three: the Space of Causes, the Space of Reasons and Freud’s unconscious mind which I will refer to in future posts as “The Primary Mental Space” (governed as it is by primary process thinking). Each space has it’s own rules, and each must interact with at least one another space, or perhaps both other spaces. This will be the topic of my next post in this series- how the mind, with both of its spaces, interacts with the Space of Causes/the outside world.
So to sum up: I believe we should treat the mind’s relationship with itself in a similar way to the mind’s relationship with the world. By not doing so, we risk oversimplifying the mind and it’s various forms of mental processing. The epistemological and logical issues that come up with one also come up with the other.